Thousands at risk of losing federal food assistance under new Trump Administration policy

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(WJHL)- A new Trump Administration policy is expected to save the federal government more than $5.5 billion over five years but the change will cause 688 thousand people to fall out of eligibility for food assistance benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This cut to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or “SNAP” benefits is the first of several changes expected to be announced following a public comment period. The executive action comes after Congress decided not to include several SNAP reforms in the 2018 Farm Bill.

“We’re taking action to reform our SNAP program in order to restore the dignity of work for a sizable segment of our population and to be respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a press conference Wednesday.

Deputy Under Secretary for Food Nutrition and Consumer Services Brandon Lipps said the final rule doesn’t impact “the most vulnerable” people in the program.

“These limits do not apply to children and their parents, those over 50 years old, including the elderly, those with a disability or pregnant women,” he said.

The change does impact adults 18-49 without dependents, according to Lipps. He said this group has long been limited to three months of benefits over a three year period unless they’re working or participating in job training for at least 20 hours a week. SNAP recipients also have the option to volunteer to maintain their benefits.

Currently, USDA officials claim about three-fourths of these adults are not working. Lipps didn’t provide further information on why.

He said some states waive times limits on able-bodied adults in areas deemed to have a “lack of sufficient jobs.” Now, USDA is restricting that power by preventing states from carrying over unused waivers for more than a year and limiting them to areas with 6 percent unemployment or more based on a 24-month average.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, no county in Tennessee would qualify for a waiver based on this criteria.

These eight Northeast Tennessee counties don’t qualify for an area waiver based on a 24-month average of their respective unemployment rates.

According to the Tennessee Department of Human Services, seven counties are currently under this waiver, including Bledsoe, Hancock, Jackson, Lake, Lauderdale, McNairy and Scott counties.

“We are currently researching the future impact and potential next steps,” Spokesperson Sky Arnold said.

Virginia Department of Social Services Spokesperson Cletisha Lovelace said 55 localities in Virginia are under this waiver. After the final rule is implemented, she said only 5 will be eligible. She wasn’t able to immediately provide specifics.

Rhonda Chafin, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, said some in rural areas may not have the education, training or transportation they need to get a job where they live.

“Second Harvest is obviously always concerned if there are cuts to the federal nutrition program,” she said.

Chafin said if these able-bodied adults lose their SNAP benefits, they’ll likely turn to food pantries for full-time support. “We just don’t have the resources to be able to do that. Normally what we do is help families and help individuals who need assistance in an emergency situation,” she said.

Virginia and Tennessee lawmakers are split on the policy.

In a statement, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va) said:

“The SNAP program helps people put food on the table when they can’t make ends meet. The new Trump Administration rule would take food assistance away from hundreds of thousands of Americans who are trying to pick themselves up and find long-term employment. One of the richest countries on earth shouldn’t be forcing more of its own citizens to go hungry.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA)

Northeast Tennessee Congressman Phil Roe (R-D1) called the policy “common sense.”

“The SNAP program was not created to be used as unconditional assistance. Today, with the U.S. economy stronger than ever before and more job openings than job seekers, we should be encouraging able-bodied adults to join a thriving workforce in an effort to improve their lives. I believe this rule change is a move in the right direction for SNAP to give folks a hand up – not a handout – when they need it most.”

Rep. Phil Roe (R-Johnson City)

Southwest Virginia Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-D9) also issued a statement:

“I support the intent of the changes the Trump Administration is making to the SNAP program. These reforms only apply to able-bodied adults between 18 and 49 years old without dependents, and their goal is to help move people toward independence. They will promote accountability with taxpayer dollars while assisting SNAP recipients with improving their lives.”

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-D9)

Lipps said the changes will be implemented in 120 days.

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